Amy Peters still battles daily with her daughter Katie’s tears and emotions when she drops her off for the day at her preschool. Katie’s 3 and joined the preschool last month and still has a rough go of it in the morning. Sound familiar? Separation anxiety’s a normal part of child development. Babies (at about 9 months of age) and aware toddlers will often scream when it’s time for Mommy or Daddy to hand them off to the caregiver, even if it’s a familiar routine. It’s also normal for preschoolers or young school-age children to become tearful or clingy when starting a new school or returning after a break. Knowing that it’s normal is hardly helpful to moms and dads, though. Seeing their children upset often results in guilty and stressed-out parents, and many can actually make the separation worse without realizing it. Having worked with hundreds of young children and families for more than 20 years, I have witnessed thousands of drop-offs.
Tips for making separation less stressful for everyone:
1. build familiarity.
Bring your child to the center before the first day. Let him see the caregivers or teachers, other children, play areas and materials. Arrange to visit several times, if possible, with the duration increasing slightly with each visit.
2. tell your child what to expect.
Read storybooks to your child about children who go to a babysitter, day care or school. Let him know where you’ll be while you’re away and when you’ll be back. Make sure he knows who’ll be looking after him in your absence and show him you’re friends with them. Walk your child through the day, for example, “After I walk you to your classroom I am going to go to work. After nap, you’ll go on the playground and I’ll be back to pick you up at 3 o’clock.”
3. don’t sneak out.
Many parents may try to dash away while their child’s looking the other way, rushing out the door without a goodbye. When the child realizes this, he often become even more upset than he was originally, and it takes longer to calm him down. Let your child know you’re leaving instead of sneaking away. Be positive and remind him when you’ll be back, and that you’ll have to go to the store together or something he’s familiar with.
4. be quick.
Don’t prolong the goodbyes, but this doesn’t mean you should push them out of the car and drive off, either. Establish a comfortable routine, such as you leave after you help your child hang up his backpack. Give a cheerful hug, kiss and goodbye then head out.
5. keep going.
Say goodbye and then go. Tara, a mom of three, says, “I was a mess when I first sent my oldest child to day care. I would listen outside the door and if he was still crying after 30 seconds, I’d head right back in to comfort him. We’d do this half a dozen times or more some mornings. After several months, the director urged me to wait longer. She stood with me and urged me to be patient. My son screamed for three minutes and stopped. I continued listening at the door and the crying decreased to mere seconds — if he cried at all.”
6. call to check in.
If you’re worried, call or e-mail the caregiver, director or teacher to check on your child.
7. return on time.
When you come back when you say you will, your child will begin to understand that you’ll always return. If you’re going to be late, call the facility and emphasize that the message be explained to your child.
8. stay calm.
Your child senses when you’re upset. If you’re feeling guilty, frustrated or sad, he’ll feed off of your emotions. Stay calm and upbeat at both drop off and pick up times.
9. rinse and repeat.
Stay consistent. Routines help children feel safe. Try to stick to the same schedule every morning.
10. be patient.
Don’t throw in the towel if your child’s still crying after a week. If you’re happy with everything else about the caregiver or school, give it some time. It can take several weeks for a child to adjust to a new situation. However, trust your instincts. If your child’s reluctance to part from you is very out of character, there could be a situation with the caregiver, teacher or environment causing the stress. Remember that like most childhood phases, this too shall pass. However, if drop- off causes your child intense and prolonged emotional distress, he may be suffering from separation anxiety disorder, a rare, but lasting condition that can continue into elementary school and beyond. Characteristics include a reluctance to sleep alone, loss of appetite, nightmares and panic attacks. If your child’s excessively fearful of being separated from you, talk to your pediatrician.